Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi are preparing an arsenal of Scud missiles for a full-scale assault on rebel positions, opposition sources told The Washington Times.
Meanwhile, rebels tightened their stranglehold Wednesday on Tripoli by cutting off a crucial oil and gas pipeline that supplies the capital, one of the Gadhafi regime’s few remaining strongholds.
In addition, the rebels celebrated the opening of their embassy in Washington on Wednesday, one day after saying they expect to see victory in the 6-month-old civil war by the end of August.
Several rebel sources told The Times that pro-Gadhafi forces have fired two Scud missiles at their positions in the past week. The unguided, surface-to-surface missiles have a range of about 185 miles and can cause extensive damage.
NATO has confirmed one of the launches, saying it detected on Sunday a Scud-type missile fired from Col. Gadhafi’s tribal stronghold in Sirte. The missile landed three miles east of the oil port of Brega in an area controlled by the rebels.
The rebels said NATO forces intercepted a second Scud on Friday over Misrata on the Mediterranean coast in the western part of Libya. NATO officials have not confirmed the incident.
A colonel who served as a weapons-deployment specialist in the Libyan army before his defection this year said he thinks the two Scud launches are part of an effort by pro-Gadhafi forces to “calibrate the missiles to inflict heavy damage.”
“Gadhafi is calibrating and checking the ranges of the missiles, and it is not long before he either hits Brega, Ajdabiya or Misrata,” the colonel said through an interpreter.
“There is a grave danger. Gadhafi is in the process of perfecting the act,” he added.
The colonel, who spoke from Tunisia on the condition of anonymity, served in the 32nd Battalion led by Col. Gadhafi’s son Khamis. The battalion has been responsible for much of the destruction wreaked by regime forces.
He said most of the regime’s Scuds are kept west of Sirte at the Libyan air force base of Ghardabiya and that both missiles that were recently launched originated from that site.
Other missiles are located at the air force base in Al Jufra and the city of Houn, south of Sirte, the rebels said. Al Jufra was bombed early in the conflict by French and NATO aircraft.
The rebels said they had discussed the Scud stockpiles with NATO and the U.S. before the recent launches and have shared more details about the missiles this week.
The regime has a stockpile of about 200 Scuds, said a former Libyan army officer who spoke on background. North Korean ballistics specialists helped extend the range of the missiles from 124 miles to 185 miles in 2003, he said.
Two rebels and a Western official said the Scuds are old and imprecise, and many might not be operational.
“Although the surface-to-surface missiles in Gadhafi’s arsenal are highly inaccurate and not designed to hit a specific target, they are a weapon of terror,” Canadian air force Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, told reporters.
“Their use against an urban or industrial area is utterly irresponsible,” he added.
However, the Libyan colonel noted that even 50 operational missiles can wreak havoc. “If Gadhafi manages to hit a city, the destruction will be massive,” he said.
The rebels said they are defenseless against the Scuds.
“We are powerless. We hope for the best,” said Mohamed, a Misrata-based spokesman for the rebels who gave only his first name.
But the onus is on NATO to destroy the missiles and prevent a catastrophe, he added.
“It takes between eight to 12 hours to prepare a Scud missile for launch, so it should be fairly easy for NATO to take out these missiles, since they know where they are based,” Mohamed said.
Libya’s ballistic missile arsenal is made up of Scud-Bs from the former Soviet Union, North Korean Scud-Cs and a 310-mile- to 435-mile-range missile under development, called Al Fatah, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.
The Scud-Cs were destroyed under U.S. and British supervision in 2004. Libya had pledged to eliminate all ballistic missiles with a range of 185 miles and a payload of 1,100 pounds or greater.
In March, allied aircraft destroyed an SS-1 Scud transport erector launcher (TEL) near Ajdabiya in eastern Libya. That strike was followed by others on Scud garrisons around Tripoli.
On Wednesday, rebel forces advanced on Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold of Tripoli and were waging a fierce battle for control of the city of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of the capital.
Ahmed, a resident of Zawiyah who gave only his first name out of concern for his safety, said the city’s oil refinery had been shut down and pro-Gadhafi fighters were holed up in a hospital in a southeastern neighborhood.
“The oil refinery has stopped working. That supply line has been cut,” said Ahmed.
The refinery supplies oil and gas to Tripoli. Residents of the capital say they already are facing extreme shortages of fuel and food.
Control of Zawiyah is crucial as it sits on a key supply line to Tripoli and holds the country’s last functioning refinery.
Earlier in the fighting, the regime waged a fierce battle for Zawiyah, and residents at the time described a massacre by pro-Gadhafi forces. Entire city blocks were razed to the ground. This time, the rebels are expressing confidence that the regime’s forces cannot gain the upper hand.
“We hope to celebrate the final victory at the same time as the end of [the Muslim holy month of] Ramadan” at the end of August, Mansur Saif al-Nasr, the rebel National Transitional Council’s envoy to Paris, said Tuesday.
In Washington, the rebels celebrated a diplomatic victory with the opening of their embassy at the Watergate Hotel. The office originally was the site of the Libyan Embassy.
Ali Aujali, who served as Col. Gadhafi’s envoy in Washington before he defected to the rebels’ side, will head the office.
The Obama administration has given recognition to the rebels’ National Transitional Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The administration is unfreezing assets belonging to the embassy so that it can run its daily operations.